Short Story — Excuse Me, There’s A Line by Omer Friedlander
Everyone in the family thought my uncle, David, would never enlist. Some even thought he might never come back from India. But, true to his word, he came back, half his original weight and with twice the amount of hair on his head, talking about tulips sticking out of guns and civil disobedience and flying elephants (he experimented) and never, ever serving beyond the Green Line.
I imagined the bus coming to pick him up. He must have been sitting cross-legged on the hot concrete, reading a book. I liked to think it was Indian poetry. They must have called for everyone to board the bus. He would have looked over the pages of his book, some people he would have recognised from a previous line.
“The army is filled with lines and waiting,” he tells me, “and hot, dusty days.”
“You too, let’s go. Get on that bus,” the officer would say.
David would have kept on reading, his eyes fixed on a particular spot on the page without really understanding what he was reading. After a few moments, he would turn the page slowly and deliberately.
He would have felt the officer grow tense. “I won’t tell you again! Yalla!” A shadow would fall across the yellow pages of his book. “If you don’t get on that bus, you’re going to jail.” It would be a different voice, older, rough as sandpaper. Curious, my uncle would look up and get blinded by the sun for a moment. When his eyes would adjust from a fierce red to reality, a man would be standing over him. His eyebrows would almost be meeting in a scowl and his uniform would have insignias indicating he had a high rank.
“Excuse me, I am reading,”my uncle would say.
His voice would sound young, even to himself. He would see bored faces looking down at the scene unfolding from the bus windows. The soldier would stand a while longer.
How very un-Israeli to say excuse me! How very un-manly to be reading!
He would seem to say all this with his dense, thick line of eyebrows. Then he would take David’s personal details and number, and in a soft voice, almost a lover’s whisper, he would inform him that he would personally make sure that he got screwed hard for this.They said it took all of my grandmother’s connections, and there were many, for my uncle to avoid doing jail-time.
Instead of serving as a combat soldier, my uncle had been sent to the Educational Brigade. What the army and education had in common he did not know. He would be zigzagging in and out of the Green Line, delivering videos to far-off outposts. There wasn’t much censorship on videos at the time, but the options were limited. Eskimo Limon was a favourite. When telling this story, my uncle would laugh at this point. His salt-and-pepper beard and hair were a mess, and it was hard to imagine him in uniform.
Years later, not much had changed. Everyone had doubts about my recruitment, just as they did for my uncle. Unable to make a decision, I postponed my service.
We lived in a commune. It was August. Figs hung, sticky and sweet, by our window. We picked them and made jam. Once, we taped a kitchen knife to a broomstick and cut prickly pears off of cacti, rolling them on the grass to get the thorns out. It wasn’t that we couldn’t buy any food; we all came from good families. We just liked the sense of adventure. Our year was spent in an Ethiopian Immigration Centre. The smallest boys and girls, too young for school, created games out of rambling yarn and lime coloured marbles and pieces of chalk. Foreheads damp with perspiration, they created trains derailing and car crashes, heroes fighting and dying and mothers feeding babies and lions and elephants and other things they’d only seen on television.
We were fresh out of high school. Roee and Eilam were my bunkmates. Out of the three of us, two had already had sex. We had just arrived, and the first thing you notice is the smell. We lay on our beds, uncomfortably aware of ourselves, of our bodies, and the smell of injera, the Ethiopian sour yeast bread, that penetrated our nostrils and appeared in our dreams. I see a girl, with bright eyes and a headscarf. I like her because it’s not allowed. She sees me and I feel like I am being peeled in front of her, my skin like an orange. Every time a piece of me is being peeled, there is a strong smell of injera, sour and overpowering. I notice her eyebrows are beautiful, and so are her heels. They are shining like bars of soap. I don’t know where her shoes have gone. It was summer and now it is winter, and the sky is blackish-grey or clean as a new car, depending where you looked. We are close. We kiss.
There were two entrances to the centre, manned by guards. We liked going out by a hole in the gate, a shortcut, that lead straight down to the city. Safed was old and its synagogues were blue. It was small and Eilam and Roee stood out in the crowd, with their pretty-boy hair and older brother’s army T-shirt torn at the collar, drinking tea picked with leaves from the road.
I was from the city. Eilam wanted to be Prime Minister. He made phone calls to the Mayor. He was in charge of all our projects. He always had something to say, and he liked to argue with everyone, and then brush it off. He spent two years of high school in the Netherlands and had a Dutch girlfriend. They skyped every week. The only thing he knew how to say in Dutch was ‘sex in the kitchen’. He was funny sometimes.
Roee was in many ways like Forest Gump; silent, somewhere on the spectrum, always running. He’s headed for the Marines, when this year’s over. He liked to make us huge, over-the-top breakfasts of salad, omelettes, tahini and cheese. Then he would go for a run. If you missed breakfast or forgot to say good morning, he took it personally. He would’t say anything, but his whole body tensed, like that of a predator. He was a strange mix of Mother Goose and ugly duckling.
Both of them came from homes where being in the army was as normal as a glass of milk. It wasn’t even an option, you just enrolled. I wonder sometimes if they had any feelings. Did they know that I didn’t want to serve? Of my closest friends from high school, not one was planning on serving. We weren’t politically motivated or inspired or any sort of activists. Rarely did we go on any protest. They were musicians. I could not bear the thought of being trapped. Unsure of what I really wanted to accomplish, I went for the small things.
Allergies were easy. The doctor’s office was crowded with labeled jars: Pine 030, Wheat 674, Pollen 221 were some of the more common ones. There was a huge bumblebee stuffed into a vial, its wings stuck to the glass. I wanted to reach out and stroke its yellow and black fuzz. There were spiders and mushrooms and other things which I could not identify filled with reddish brown or pine coloured liquid. The doctor had a bright, snow-coloured moustache, probably the closest thing you could find to snow in Tel-Aviv. It slumped down below his lip, forming little waves of ash, and curling back up to a tip. I imagined his moustache in one of the vials, labelled ‘Doctor Eliyahu’: Jewish-Santa hair floating in green and red holiday liquid. I was allergic to quite a few things by the end of it. My arm got red, itchy and swollen as proof, but this did not get me very far. In fact, I was still fit for combat duty.
Headaches and backaches got you nowhere, so I got more creative. I always had trouble sleeping. It got worse when I was stressed or down. Nights were obstacles to be conquered. Eilam and Roee would try to catch me on film, walking with my eyes shut, mumbling. They said that if I tried to shave, they would wake me up. It was on our big end of the year trip that what I had invented became a reality. I never believed I was actually a sleepwalker. It was something that would get me out of the army, that was it. It happened when we were on a trip, sleeping outside on the grass before the sprinkler went off in the morning. I don’t remember how it happened, but I ended up losing my shoes. I was brought back by the police, barefoot and yawning. They had found me wandering around the agricultural collective community we call Kibbutz in Israel, waving my arms wildly, calling out to birds and singing in my sleep.
I went to a sleep clinic. Old Russian ladies led me to a single bed in a room with a camera. The sheets were white, so were the walls and my face. I was hooked up to a monitor and wires with suction cups like octopus tentacles were attached to my chest and face and hair. I could feel every breath, louder than an avalanche. I had never been more awake, more jittery. Their results were inconclusive. But it was hard to disprove. It could happen every week or every month or even once or twice a year, there was no way to know. They could not risk giving me a gun. They were afraid I would pull a Rambo in my sleep. So I would no be a fighter. But with my allergies they said that I would be assigned to a strict sterile zone, with other unfortunate, pale young men.
I had been going to a psychologist for a while now. We had been talking about the army, and about getting out. I wanted him to write a letter for me. Not to lie, but to tell them truthfully that I was unfit for service.
“But I think you are fit. I think it’s possible that you’ll do fine. And the letter will do more damage than good. You’ll get out, but at what price? You have to ask yourself, which price is steeper? Staying in the army or getting out? It’s not olives or Uzis, you can do something in between. Something less extreme. It’s just three years.” Danny used to be an actor so sometimes I didn’t take things he said very seriously. Danny’s office was filled with Buddhas and Persian carpets, pictures of Thailand in black and white and a colourful, plush frog in the corner, so I didn’t understand what his problem was with writing the letter. He meditated, for God’s sake!
I was sitting in an office with the army psychiatrist. I had already seen a social worker, a kind middle-aged woman. The psychiatrist asked me about my dreams. I told him: I was waiting in line. I started walking towards the start of the line, but it went on an on. and there was another person and then another. I kept walking.
I don’t think he was listening. He had the look of someone who already knew what he was going to say. Kneading his forehead with his thumbs, he looks at me briefly and said, “And you have begun taking medication, correct?”
I answer, “Yes, I have.
“And you are positive that you wish to be excused from military service?”
Stepping out of the base, everything seemed to fade and yet I was alert like never before. I felt like I was looking through a boiling kettle’s vapor, its siren whistling louder and louder till I got the feeling that there was going to be an explosion. I wanted to call my parents and tell them the news, but I didn’t.
A line of green uniforms stretched almost to the parking lot.
Omer Friedlander has a BA in English from the University of Cambridge and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Boston University. His work has appeared in over a dozen publications in the US, UK, Canada, France and Israel.